Cannabis’s relationship with the law has been on an emotional roller coaster for a few hundred years. It was love at first sight when Europeans and Americans were introduced to the incredibly versatile crop. From the 1600’s to the 1890’s, the production of hemp (a variety of the cannabis plant) was highly encouraged. Hemp’s industrial uses ranged from textile production to body care products to paper products to livestock maintenance. And, of course, marijuana was an ingredient featured in many of that era’s medicines.
The Turning Point
Things got less romantic for MJ when Mexican migrants entering the United States during the Mexican Revolution introduced the use of recreational marijuana, creating a cultural association of the plant with Mexican immigrants. And because America wouldn’t be America without some good, old-fashioned racial bias and xenophobia, the first wave of anti-Mexican *cough* I mean, anti-pot laws emerged.
The Great Depression solidified the law’s breakup with cannabis. The floundering economy bred intense resentment and fear in the country, and those ingredients are disastrous for minority groups, especially immigrants, who often become the scapegoats for the frustrated majority.
Propaganda illustrated Mexican immigrants as criminals controlled by the “marijuana menace,” a drug falsely associated with insanity, violence, and other deviant behaviors. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed the once treasured plant. The passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively criminalized marijuana nation-wide by imposing restrictive regulations on exports and harsh penalties on anyone in violation of the law.
Where does Marijuana Stand with the Law Now?
Most Americans want to give the relationship another chance, but the government isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with most Americans.
According to this October 2016 Gallup poll, 60% of Americans support the legal use of marijuana
That’s the highest level of support recorded in 47-years. But between 2001 and 2010, over 7 million people were arrested for simple marijuana possession. Annually, states spend $3,613,969,972 enforcing marijuana laws people aren’t really into anymore. Despite the huge amount of money and energy police are putting into drug-related arrests, more Americans ages 12 and older are using illegal drugs than they have in 40 years.
Marijuana possession makes up even more arrests than those for violent crimes. According to the most recent FBI “Crime in the United States” report, in 2015, marijuana possession accounted for 38.6% of all drug related offenses. That is more than the total amount of arrests of drug manufacturers, including those who produce or deal heroine, cocaine, synthetic drugs, or other dangerous nonnarcotic drugs combined.
However, there has been a slight nation-wide decline in overall drug possession arrests. Since 2014, these arrests have decreased from over 500 per 100,000 people to around 400 arrests per 100,000 people. That number—which translates to one marijuana arrest every 50 seconds—is still much higher than the 1980’s rate of arrests, around 200 per 100,000 people.
In states where marijuana has been legalized, the script is flipped. Colorado and Washington have seen enormous declines in marijuana related arrests since voters legalized the use of recreational weed in November of 2012.
Pot related arrests in Colorado are down by 80.1% since 2010
Specifically, marijuana possession arrests have decreased by 78%, distribution arrests have decreased by 97.8%, and cultivation arrests have decreased by 78.4%.
Washington State has seen a similar downward trend. Low-level marijuana offense court filings have declined by 98% since 2011, marijuana law violations have decreased by 63%, and marijuana-related convictions have decreased by 81%. It is also interesting to note that violent crime rates have decreased by 10%. Murder has decreased by 13% and burglaries have decreased by 6%. There is no scientifically explained causation between legalized marijuana and the decline of violent crime, but this data does demonstrate that legalization did not result in an outbreak of insane, murderous, violent thieving. So much for the marijuana menace.
There’s Still a Black Market
Pot related arrests have sharply declined in places where use has been totally legalized. But given the fact that marijuana is completely legal in these locations, you would think that there would be no pot-related arrests, right?
Well, despite the availability of legal cannabis, a black market still exists, and a huge part of that has to do with price. The taxes imposed on recreational marijuana are pretty high, forcing manufacturers to ask for higher prices in order to make a worthwhile profit. Even if cannabis may be available in a store, and its purchase through that venue may include very little legal risk, if someone knows a guy selling it for a much cheaper price, that someone might continue to take the illegal route.
There are ways to eliminate black markets, and the example of Rear Admiral Luther E. Gregory provides a pretty impressive illustration of that. In the 1930’s, Gregory was charged with eliminating the black market for alcohol distribution in Washington State. He accomplished that by drastically reducing taxes on alcohol and making it easy for bootleggers to enter the legal market rather than chasing them down with a prison sentence. By rewarding people who played by the rules and making legal alcohol extremely competitive with bootleg booze, he was able to eliminate the black market, and, in three years, elevate taxes on alcohol to some of the highest in the nation without the threat of a reemerging bootleg movement.
Until legal cannabis is more financially competitive, illegal dealers still have enough incentive to entice cannabis seekers with cheaper prices.
As long as an illegal market exists, people are going to be arrested for breaking the law
Racial Bias and Xenophobia:
Ruining Relationships Since the Beginning of Time
Even though white and black smoking rates are similar, a disproportionate amount of those arrested are black or Latino. According to the ACLU, black Americans are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites. For example, pot arrests in New York City actually increased in 2016, and, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to reduce pot arrests, the racial disparities are almost just as bad as they were in 2013. Of those arrested, 46% were black, 39% were Hispanic, and 10% were white. In 2013, 50% were black, 37% Hispanic, and 9% white.
There isn’t a way to address the racial discrepancy in pot-related arrests without talking about problematic police practices that are clearly racially biased. Police send greater amounts of officers to neighborhoods with high crime rates, but this usually means that minor offenses like jaywalking or marijuana possession result in arrests. Police use arrests as a measure of productivity and effectiveness in stopping crime, so people of color get arrested for doing the same things white people are getting away with in the suburbs. Crime rates in these targeted neighborhoods go up, and the cycle continues.
The good thing is that legalization of cannabis means that in some states, being arrested for possession is probably not going to happen since possession is legal. But high prices for legal marijuana may keep people invested in a black market.
As long as cannnabis remains misunderstood and described as far more dangerous than it actually is and the use of marijuana is negatively associated with specific minority groups, the fight for legalization will suffer, and arrests will continue to baffle the mind.
The tumultuous relationship between marijuana and the law is confusing and so often irrational, but one thing is clear. The problem isn’t marijuana’s. It’s the law’s.